20 Musicians That Actually Turned into Incredible Actors

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David Bowie, Mandy Moore, Jack White — performances of a lifetime.

There’s an odd cognitive dissonance that takes place when musicians make the jump to the silver screen. Sometimes you’re properly forewarned, and there’s only a momentary lapse before you suspend disbelief — oh yeah, I heard so-and-so was in this. It’s more jarring when the appearance comes as a surprise, when the '60s chanteuse seems to pop up on your Netflix as if magically transported from your friend’s big sister’s record collection. Here are the films that best capture that strange moment when you see your favorite pop star in a film.

David Bowie in The Prestige

Granted, most of our childhood nightmares featured Bowie’s feathered hair and mammoth crotch bulge stalking Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth. Here, portraying Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla (as the movie takes a weird turn from Victorian magic shtick to anti-Edison fable), Bowie trades space oddity flamboyance for old European reserve.

Sting in Dune

Dune gets flak from readers of Frank Herbert’s novel and diehard David Lynch fans alike. The Herbert crowd hate on the film for trimming the book’s content, and the Lynch folks see it as a lackluster orphan in the director’s larger oeuvre. Whatever. Sting’s turn as Feyd-Rautha, nemesis to Paul Atreides (future Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, Kyle MacLachlan), is as awesome as the character’s name.

Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job

Lest we forget that Marky Mark was a pop star once. Sure, Wahlberg’s resume has better films on it, like The Departed and Boogie Nights, but The Italian Job shows him at his most charming. Witness Wahlberg flirting with Charlize Theron, palling around with Mos Def, sharing poignant moments with Donald Sutherland, giving Edward Norton what’s coming to him. It’s like Entourage, but with car chases — and Jason Statham.

Mos Def in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Speaking of Mos Def, this 2005 adaptation of Douglas Adam’s novel featured the rapper caught between a psychotic Sam Rockwell and a persistently schlubby Martin Freeman. The movie was set in an alternative universe where not everyone knew what “twee” meant and you could still go on quietly loving Zooey Deschanel.

Mandy Moore in Saved

Forget Macaulay “Pizza Underground” Caulkin in a wheelchair, forget the kid from Almost Famous on a scooter, the most awesome thing about this movie is that Mandy Moore takes her wholesome Christian good girl image and turns it on its head. And also, during the end credits, there’s a version of her singing “God Only Knows” — get it? — that was produced by Michael Stipe and it isn’t half bad.

Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Bob Dylan, in mid-career scraggly beard mode, sees fit to saddle up and mosey onto the big screen in the Sam Peckinpah classic. He mumbles his way through his portrayal of “Alias,” a character that could have sprung forth from one of his own songs, and also provides the soundtrack, including the hit “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which a few years later Eric Clapton would cheese up even worse than the likewise Western-themed “I Shot the Sheriff.”

Serge Gainsbourg in Paris Does Not Exist

Seen against the classics of the French New Wave, Robert Benayoun’s 1969 film comes off as an awkward also-ran. Serge Gainsbourg plays Laurent, who keeps seeing visions of people and places from the Paris of yesteryear. At first Laurent thinks his apartment’s haunted. His girlfriend Angela, played by Danièle Gaubert, isn’t pleased. Laurent’s pretty blasé about it. There’s a lot of smoking and camera tricks, the carpeting is kind of gauche, and the revelation at the end loses some of its impact from having been there in the title all along.

Cher in Moonstruck

It’s an old story: Cher, a bundle of frantic Brooklyn energy, sporting a haircut later reprised by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld, agrees to marry Danny Aiello’s Johnny Cammareri but ends up falling for Johnny’s brother Ronny, played by perennial weirdo Nicolas Cage. Cher won an Oscar for the performance, and her wide-eyed “Snap out of it!” will continue to perk up clip reels for years to come, but it’s Cage’s puppy dog lunacy that steals the show in lines like “Bring me the big knife” and “I love two things: You, and the opera.”

Björk in Dancer in the Dark

A year before Björk showed up at the Oscars in a dress so reviled it now has its own Wikipedia entry, she starred in Lars von Trier’s melodrama, which is either a delirious kitschy fever dream or a brilliant reimagining of the movie musical in the age of Gen X cynicism and the music video, but at any rate so maddeningly difficult to fathom that you can kind of understand everybody getting so worked up over that swan dress.

John Lennon in How I Won the War

While Hollywood was churning out hard-boiled war films, Charles Bronson riding around stone-faced in a jeep, Britain opted for farce. Richard Lester, who directed the brilliant Beatles star vehicle A Hard Day’s Night, enlisted Lennon to play the role of Private Gripweed. The casting worked because Lennon was the serious Beatle, the one who wore glasses, and had written a book — and anyway, you wouldn’t go putting Ringo in a trench, would you?

Ringo Starr in Son of Dracula

You might, however, put him in a wizard costume. After the Beatles split up, Ringo and John Lennon did a lot of hanging out with Harry Nilsson. When Nilsson’s story album The Point — reputedly conceived on an acid trip (and also, incidentally, one of the best albums of the 1970s) — was turned into a cartoon, Ringo served as narrator. With Son of Dracula, it was Starr who brought Nilsson on board to play Count Downe, the lead, reserving the role of Merlin for himself.

Will Oldham in Old Joy

Oldham did some acting as a young man before becoming better known for his work as a folk musician, recording under the monikers Palace Brothers and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. His somewhat muted portrayal of Kurt in Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 indie film was later overshadowed, for better or worse, by his entirely mute performance in Zach Galifianakis’s parody video for Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nuthin’.”

Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer

Grace Jones’s scenes in Conan the Destroyer are easily the best in the movie — except, maybe, for one battle sequence in which Arnold Schwarzenegger punches a horse.

Seu Jorge in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

As with many of Wes Anderson’s films, I suspect that certain aspects of The Life Aquatic might not age well. Owen Wilson’s Southern accent, for example. But the interludes in which Seu Jorge, as Pélé dos Santos, leans against the deck railing playing Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs on nylon string guitar? These I think will hold up over time.

Tom Waits in Down by Law

Tom Waits plays more or less his stage persona alongside John Lurie and Roberto Benigni. The three men are convicts who escape a Louisiana prison. There are a number of black-and-white shots of barren crossroads, but Waits looks more comfortable in the bleak surroundings than he would five years later, appearing as a guest on “Fishing with John,” confined to a small boat with host John Lurie.

Chantal Goya in Masculin Féminin

Chantal Goya plays coy gamine Madeleine Zimmer, quickly rising to fame as a Parisian pop star. Paul, her boyfriend, isn’t happy about it, but then he’s not happy about much of anything. It’s funny how we can look back at Jean-Luc Godard’s Marxism and scoff. It’s not that he wasn’t right; it’s just that what he was saying seems so obvious now. Jean-Pierre Léaud would reprise his moody role in more of Godard’s films, La Chinoise among them. Goya would keep singing songs for children.

Jack White in Cold Mountain

Whether it’s Mumford and Sons making a career from impersonating George Clooney and Co.’s (lip-synching) performances in O Brother Where Art Thou, or Jim James & Calexico playing “Goin’ to Acapulco” behind Richard Gere’s Bob Dylan on a horse in I’m Not There, the involuted feedback loop of old time music in movies and real life continues, with Jack White’s bewhiskered 2003 performance remaining a relatively innocuous early instance.

Mick Jagger in Ned Kelly

Little of what this 1970 British production might have had to say about the life of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly has survived for posterity, having unfortunately gotten lost in Mick Jagger’s beard. The soundtrack, though, with songs penned by Shel Silverstein and performed by American country singers Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, has happily endured.

Justin Timberlake in In Time

I know, I know: The Social Network, Trouble with the Curve, Inside Llewyn Davis — Justin Timberlake has appeared in films far superior to this one. Still, stuck on a long flight last year I sat and watched In Time on my seatmate’s screen (mine was broken). I saw the film in its entirety. I watched and was amazed. Cillian Murphy, as the villain, struggles with both the script and the bulky leather coats he’s got to wear despite the hot LA weather on set. JT, the hero, is still on his suit-and-tie shit.

Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

The title, and Burt Reynold’s mustache, tell you all you need to know. I’d therefore like to take this opportunity to argue that Dolly Parton’s version of “I Will Always Love You” is far superior to the version by Whitney.

Images via IMDb.

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